"You here to ask me about Iraq?" Mel Karmazin wants to know as he strides into a conference room at Viacom's headquarters in New York City. Karmazin is here to talk about Viacom's business. But irreverent charm is part of his act and part of what makes him one of the longest-running hits on Wall Street. Karmazin, 59, made his name in radio, running Infinity Broadcasting, which he sold in 1996 to Westinghouse (which had acquired CBS a year earlier). He became CEO of CBS in January 1999 and within a year persuaded Viacom chairman and CEO Sumner Redstone to buy CBS for $40 billion. Now, as president and COO of Viacom, Karmazin presides over a portfolio whose holdings include MTV, UPN, Paramount Pictures and Simon & Schuster and whose revenues in 2002 were $24.6 billion. With a stable roster of executives and an A-minus credit rating, Viacom is one of the best-positioned giants in the media industry. It's also one of the most profitable, earning $2.2 billion in its past fiscal year.
Karmazin is the natural choice to succeed Redstone, though it's unclear when that might occur. The two men, whose acrimonious relationship is well publicized, renewed their contracts this year, but Redstone's contains no termination clause, and Karmazin's expires in 2006. Fearful of being sidelined, Redstone, 80, won language stating that he has "full and final decision-making authority" over corporate strategy and that he should be kept apprised of "significant operating" issues. Asked to describe their relationship, Karmazin says, "Healthy." --By Daren Fonda/New York